The first View-Master in the late 1930s wasn’t meant to be children’s toy. A Portland, Oregon, organ-maker and photographer named William Gruber was fascinated with a Victorian optical device known as a stereoscope, which created an illusion of 3-D using two side-by-side photographs. Gruber had the idea to mass-produce a portable stereoscope, using new Kodachrome color film, which could be held in one’s hands.
While Gruber was touring the nearby attraction Oregon Caves National Park, he met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Inc., a company that specialized in souvenir picture postcards. Graves asked Gruber why he was using two cameras strapped together, and so Gruber explained the invention he was working on. Graves said he’d love to help produce and sell this idea, but he could only offer Gruber a share of the profits.
Graves and Gruber debuted the View-Master to the public at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York, where it was sold as a souvenir of the event. Afterward, they sold the devices at specialty photography and stationery stores, and the reels depicted scenes from national parks like the Grand Canyon and other gorgeous landscapes around the United States. These early reels, which came in a gold envelope, are dark blue with a gold sticker and what appears to be hand-lettering. In 1941, more than 100,000 stores offered View-Masters.
When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the government commissioned millions of View-Master reels from Sawyer’s to teach servicemen how to identify airplanes and ships within shooting range. These reels tend to be tan with a blue stamp. Because paper was rationed during the war, these came in a variety of front-and-back paper combinations like tan with blue, tan with white, or marbleized.
Thanks to the publicity from the war effort, View-Master was so well known by the mid-'40s, the company didn’t have to advertise them. Before View-Master had a contract with Disney, Sawyer’s would re-create scenes from animated films like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” using 3-D clay tabletop models.
Then, in 1951, Sawyer’s bought out one of View-Master’s competitors, Tru-Vue, and gained the license to all of Walt Disney’s characters. After the agreement, View-Master could use cel-style drawings from the actual films. Suddenly, the device had tremendous kid appeal, and movies and TV characters became a staple of the View-Master line. “Captain Kangaroo,” “Pinky Lee,” the original “Mouseketeers,” Roy Rogers, Flipper, and The Monkees have all been recorded on these reels.
In 1955, View-Master introduced three-reel packets, which often came with storybooks, and began phasing single reels out. That same year, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California...
During the '50s, when 3-D movies were all the rage, View-Masters would be placed in movie-theater lobbies, loaded with preview reels of upcoming features. Moviegoers would look through the viewers to get a taste of 3-D films like “House of Wax” with Vincent Price, “They Called Him Hondo,” with John Wayne, and “It Came From Outer Space.” Only 29 films were previewed this way, and so these reels are now hot items for collectors. A “House of Wax” reel recently sold for more than $300.
Sawyer’s, View-Master’s parent company, was purchased by General Aniline and Film Corporation, or G.A.F., in 1966. G.A.F. pushed through several View-Master innovations, including the “talking” View-Master and View-Master projectors. The 1969 Apollo moon landing was also depicted in a View-Master reel.
Often failed TV shows would end up as View-Master reels, and these include “The Smith Family” starring Henry Fonda, “Korg 70,000 B.C.,” "Apple’s Way,” “Julia,” and “Isis.” But the cult TV shows of the '60s like “Lost in Space, “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family” are particularly popular with collectors now.
The View-Master dipped in popularity in the '70s, and around 1980, Arnold Thaler acquired the rights to View-Master, creating the View-Master International company. Later, he purchased the Ideal Toy Company and merged View-Master into that toy line. Tyco Toys purchased the company in 1989, and in 1997, Tyco was swallowed up by Mattel, which branded the View-Master under Fisher-Price. In 1999, the View-Master was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.
At this point, more than 1.5 billion View-Master reels have been produced. The delightful thing about View-Master is that the size and shape of the reels have never changed, nor has the basic function of the viewer. Each paper reel has 14 slides that create seven images, so any reel in decent condition, no matter how old it is, can be viewed through any View-Master.
Reels made between 1960 and 1963 often have a “blistering” or “bubbling” effect on the paper that occurred in manufacturing. However, the real concern for collectors is if the film is damaged or missing, which can render a reel worthless.
Most View-Masters viewers are remarkably common, and so only the earliest models, like Model A and Model B, have any value on the market. The blue-and-brown Model Bs are particularly scarce. Model D is coveted because it’s the only viewer in the line with a focusing feature. The black Bakelite Model C, however, has proven indestructible, and therefore, is easy to find.
Some collectors focus exclusively on View-Master products. But they often themselves in fierce competition with character collectors who snatch up anything related to Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Batman, or so on.